Ryan likes to think he’s a patient man. Being an FBI agent, contrary to popular opinion, isn’t all bomb blasts and car chases and Bond-esque chicanery. It’s slow, most of the time. Collect the evidence, consider the evidence, report on the evidence, and then cautiously make a conclusion about the evidence. Ryan is—was—a thinker. He thought about the crimes he investigated and the criminals who committed them. And now he’s doing it again.
It’s Monday and Ryan doesn’t even feel the obligatory burn of it. The nanny and the gay neighbors still have Joey in some safe-house that Ryan’s half-convinced only exists in Joe’s mind, and the fucking FBI is no closer to tracking down a few twenty-something kids than they were three weeks ago. Claire’s right to be angry, he thinks. If Ryan could feel anything anymore other than tired, he’s sure he would be stomping around, breathing down Weston’s neck and feeling fury throb under his skin like it used to when he saw what sick people could do to the world. But he doesn’t.
He lets Claire stare at him with tears in her eyes and something else, and he looks away from her accusations, looks down at the floor, thinks about that first meeting with Parker. I read your file. You don’t play well with others.
Ryan thinks about that sometimes, and sometimes he laughs. Maybe others don’t play well with me, he thinks, lying in bed at night, to the empty air in his apartment. But that sounds a little too much like something Joe would say, and Ryan makes a point of keeping Joe out of his personal time—and that means keeping him out of Ryan’s chilly sheets and off the pillow so that Ryan can finally sleep.
So it’s Monday, and that means Ryan wakes up, stumbles into the office and takes a swig from his water bottle. Mike gives him a look from his desk and Ryan almost smiles at that, at the mother hen image the kid’s got going. He settles for raising his eyebrows. Mike grins in return.
“Anything new?” he asks Parker, just to ask. She’s looking at the pictures on the wall in her office, coffee in hand. She shakes her head.
“Nada. We’ve got guys on every unoccupied house in a twenty-mile radius. Checking up on everyone the Big Three have ever talked to: acquaintances, friends, friends of relatives, etcetera. Nothing so far.”
“What about Joe?”
“What about Joe?” She pushes her lips into an exaggerated O when she says his name, stretches it out. It’s the closest thing Ryan’ll get to frustration with Parker.
“Have we looked at all the places he’s had access to in the past?” Parker gives him a look. “I mean way back. Anywhere and everywhere. Think out of the way, not too obvious. Former students who have a vacation house they might’ve mentioned, second cousins—this place could be anybody’s.”
“You’re sure it connects back to him, and not to the nanny or the neighbors?”
Ryan considers the question. “Yeah, I’m sure. Joe would want to be the one. He’d want to know the location inside and out. He’s a little bit of a control freak, and you saw how he got when I told him I hadn’t killed Jordy. That wasn’t part of the plan. Joe loves the plan; it’s his grand creation, his baby or something like that. Everything has significance—everything.”
Parker’s looking at him with this half-smile, like he’s a little kid talking about the Tooth Fairy.
She sighs, amused. “Symbolism? Really? I mean, I took Lit classes in college but somehow I never thought they’d carry over to this job.” At Ryan’s dumb stare she sighs again. “It’s a story, right? Well, the plot’s progressing. We’ve got the villain and the hero—remember what Joe said to you? Okay, so if this whole thing is Joe’s very own piece of literature, then every point of interest is going to be symbolic. That means wherever our famed trio is keeping Joey is a pretty important place to Joe, Claire, or you.”
The idea is too much like Joe for Ryan to dismiss it. But still: “That helps us how?”
“I don’t know.” Parker gives him that enigmatic smile again. “But maybe it’ll come in handy.”
Ryan shrugs. He’s feeling calmer, all of a sudden. Talking to Parker sometimes does that to him, because she’s annoying and stubborn and mysterious and most of all she’s distracting. Ryan likes her, he’s almost certain. He risks another sip from the water bottle and tries to sound nonchalant. “Is Joe in today?”
Parker crosses her arms and Ryan knows he hasn’t fooled her one bit. “Why do you ask?”
“I want to talk to him again.”
Maybe it’s because it’s Monday, or maybe it’s because she’s as tired as Ryan feels, but Parker just shakes her head and nods.
“Ryan! What a pleasant surprise.”
Joe’s wearing his orange jumpsuit, but they’ve taken the splint off of his right hand. His hair looks rumpled, messier than usual, and Ryan gets a clear image in his mind of the Professor Carroll he met eight years ago, dressed in slacks and warmly solid, examining the photographs of the girls he killed. Ryan shakes the memory away.
“Ooh, someone’s grumpy. Didn’t have the requisite pick-me-up this morning?”
Ryan doesn’t like it when Joe smiles. It makes something in him go white-hot with rage, makes him do things he regrets. Like breaking Joe’s fingers. To be honest, though, Ryan doesn’t regret that too much.
He leans forward, places his elbows on the table to mirror Joe’s pose, and interlocks his fingers. “Where’s Joey?”
Joe laughs, and it’s the sound of splintering bone. “Joey? I’m touched that you’re worried, Ryan. That you’re there to comfort Claire in her time of such desperate need. I’m sure,” Joe’s voice gets low, but the smile stays, “you’ve been more than obliging to the damsel in distress.”
Ryan raises his hands. “What kind of hero would I be otherwise?” he says.
Joe pauses at that, but then he smiles again, slowly, like a shark baring its teeth. “I’m so glad.”
“Unfortunately, it turns out that I’m not so great at playing my role,” Ryan continues. He fakes a contrite look. “Sorry.”
Joe actually looks disappointed. “You’re telling the truth,” he says, and then sits back, as much as he can do when his hands are cuffed to the table in front of him.
“Sometimes I do that.” Ryan watches him carefully. “What’s it going to take, Joe?”
“To tell me where Joey is.”
Joe laughs again. “Oh, Agent Hardy, are you offering me something you shouldn’t?”
“What do you want?”
He leans forward, makes the conversation feel intimate. It’s on purpose. Ryan doesn’t lean back.
“I suppose my freedom is off the table?” Joe asks lightly. “I won’t get to walk away, and you won’t forget this whole unfortunate mess ever happened?”
Ryan raises his eyebrows. “You don’t want that. You love the attention. Why kill over and over again if you don’t want to be caught? A serial killer is only as good as his legacy. And he can’t have one if there isn’t a name to remember along with the deeds.”
“Careful there, Ryan. I do hate generalizations.”
“So you’re different from the rest, is that what you’re saying? Look, you know that even if I wanted to, I couldn’t give you that. Is there anything else? A cell with a view, a meal, some outdoor privileges?” Just tell me where you hid your son. He wants to shake the other man.
Joe purses his lips in an exaggeration of thinking. “You know,” he says slowly, “there is something I’ve been—hankering after, you might say, for a very long time.”
Ryan feels something in his stomach grow heavy, and he’s not sure why. Joe looks thoughtful, and there’s nothing more dangerous than when Joe thinks. You made your bed, he tells himself. Give him what he wants, and he’ll give you Joey. And then you can crawl back to that thing you called a life. He keeps his tone blank. “And that is?”
Joe leans in, so close Ryan can make out the flecks of hazel in the amber of the man’s eyes. He smiles.
“I’d like a kiss, Ryan. If you’d be so kind.”
He feels his eyes widen in disgust, and swallows back the revulsion that rises to his throat. Shit. Then he glances up at the security camera on the corner of the ceiling. Parker’s there, he knows, watching.
Joe looks delighted with himself. “Then again,” he says, addressing the camera, “the FBI is a rather antiquated organization, isn’t it? That might be too modern for you.” He turns back to Ryan and makes a tutting sound. “Such a shame.”
Ryan stands without even thinking about it. His palms feel sweaty and he sucks in a deep breath, glances up one last time at the camera as if waiting for someone to burst in and stop him. It’s nothing, he tells himself. His hands curl into fists. It means nothing if we find out where Joey is.
Joe sits very still in his chair, eyes locked on Ryan, a faint frown line between his eyebrows that tells Ryan how much he isn’t fitting his character profile right now.
But Joe, as ever, recovers quickly. He smiles and says, easily, “I had no idea you were that kind of man, Ryan.” He shifts in his chair and tilts his head up. “Go on, then.”
Ryan takes a step closer, so that Joe’s upturned face is below him. He can see the nick the man must have made while shaving that morning, a speck of blood not quite wiped away. It almost makes him want to throw up, but Ryan gets hold of himself, meets Joe’s eyes, which are so empty Ryan feels like he might trip and fall into them if he stands too close to the edge.
“And you’ll tell me where Joey is after?” he whispers, because he needs Joe to say it.
“Of course,” Joe breathes in reply, words ghosting over Ryan’s skin because they’re too close, he’s too far and he should have never, should have walked away—
He puts a hand on Joe’s cheek, thumb brushing the beginnings of a cheekbone. He imagines he can hear the pulse of Joe’s heart through the remaining fingers that lie on his neck, smooth from shaving, too warm. Ryan kisses him with his eyes open but Joe doesn’t close his either, and that’s worse, because their gazes are locked on one another and Joe’s mouth is warm like the rest of him, but it just opens to Ryan, unlike his mind, which is always shut no matter which way Ryan tries to break in.
The lips beneath his are too soft to be Joe's, but he knows who they belong to and their softness makes him furious for a red flash of a second, and his hand tightens where it grips the side of Joe's face. He presses harder than he needs to, rough and unyielding, because Joe isn't—he's not allowed to be this easy.
Joe’s lips are soft and dry and pliant under his, but Ryan keeps the pressure for only a little more than a second. He slips his hand from Joe’s cheek and leans back, but the man’s face stays tilted at the angle Ryan kissed him, eyes turned up and still so blank he almost looks as though he’s dead. Ryan’s never seen Joe like that, and he doesn’t even know what his own expression is, but he knows it’s giving too much away and he feels caught above the gaze of those eyes.
Finally Joe snaps out of it, looks down and Ryan can see the place on his neck where his own fingers must have lain. Then he looks up again, and smiles without teeth this time, just a slight curve of his lips. “Thank you, Ryan,” he says, and it may be just imagination but his voice sounds lower, rougher than it should be.
Ryan clears his throat. “Anytime.”
Joe gazes at him for a few more seconds before speaking again. “Wilshire County,” he says at length, and then smiles again. “The house is white. You shan’t miss it.”
“Thanks,” Ryan says after a moment, and he watches that register in Joe’s eyes, watches him blink.
And then Ryan leaves, because there’s nothing left to say. Joe’s stare carves pinpricks in his back as he pulls open the door, and he feels down to his toes, in the thump-thump of his sad, little heart, that none of this is over yet.